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Folklore & Children's Books: Bridging the Gap
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Folklore & Children's Books:
Bridging the Gap

Folklorists and retellers of folktales for the general public do not always see eye to eye. Many beautiful books are published for the juvenile market which pay little attention to sources or to authenticity of tone and language and which supply none of the working tools developed for folklore scholarship which might lead readers to further study of tales from the oral tradition. Many collections by folklorists are so concerned with local variants and the unusual persistance of motifs that they ignore questions of the value of the stories from a literary standpoint, whether they are coherent and developed in a dramatic way, whether the language gives delight to reader or hearer.

Two large recent collections make some attempt to bridge the gap: the more lavish is a highly illustrated volume by Idries Shaw, World Tales, the Extraordinary Coincidence of Stories Told in All Times, in All Places (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979), but the more successful is a solid book by Atelia Clarkson and Gilbert B. Cross, World Folktales: A Scribner Resource Collection (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1980).

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All illustrations © Barbara Cooney from American Folk Songs for Children by Ruth Crawford Seeger. Doubleday & Company, 1948.

These are not the first books published for the non-specialist to provide some discussion of variant versions of tales from the oral tradition or to give some scholarly apparatus. Stith Thompson's One Hundred Favorite Folktales (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968) provides brief notes giving the source and the tale type number for each story and a single phrase or sentence description, like "A Mediterranean story" or "This favorite folktale retold by a master story teller." It sticks mostly to stories collected from oral sources but includes one [End Page 1] Aesop fable: one tale each from Anderson, "Little Claus and Big Claus," and Perrault, "Little Red Riding Hood"; and four others that it notes are from "literary sources," though none of these are truly literary tales in the sense of having been consciously composed by an author but are rather literary retellings of folktales. The interesting collection by Iona and Peter Opie, The Classic Fairy Tales (London: Oxford University Press, 1974) is also concerned with variant versions, but is further from the folklorists' point of view, being concerned with only the versions of tales printed in English. Each of the twenty-four stories is preceded by a discussion of the earliest published occurrence of the tale and the forms and places in which it has subsequently appeared and is accompanied by illustrations from nineteenth century or earlier books. No tale type numbers are provided, however, and no distinction is made between tales from the oral tradition and literary tales, although several which are clearly not retellings of folktale are included. A small book by P. L. Travers, About the Sleeping Beauty (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1975) handles the possibilities of variation in one tale, giving five different versions of the story as told in France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, and Bengal, adding her own literary use of the same plot. It is an attractive book, illustrated by Charles Keeping, and serves to introduce children to the idea of how a tale may appear differently in different parts of the world, but it does not provide folklorists' tools or point out that this sort of variation occurs with many tales throughout the world.

None of these earlier books attempts the systematic discussion of variants that both Shaw's World Tales and Clarkson and Cross's World Folktales provide. Of these two, the one most likely to first attract attention is Shaw's outsized volume. Its sixty-five tales are all illustrated in full color (usually with full-page pictures, sometimes with several of them) by thirty-six different artists. The illustrations, more for adults than for children in their appeal, overshadow the stories. They range from the slick, poster-like art of Melvyn Grant for "The Waters of Life" to the rich, warm realism of Tim Gill for "The Brahmin's Wife and the Mongoose" to the comicbook style of Chris McEwan for the Buddist...